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Christmas Eve has always been one of the most magical nights of the year, a feeling, I am certain, that blossomed when I was an impressionable toddler.

It has never faded, even as my feelings about Christmas itself have grown increasingly conflicted.

Christmas Eve is all about light and anticipation. Although it is not the longest night of the year, it is close, just minutes shorter than the nights that come before it. As a child I sensed this, but then the anticipation was about all the presents that would appear under the tree on Christmas morning.

Over the years I have come to believe that this visceral anticipation is encoded in our genes, a gift of our earliest ancestors who struggled for signs that life-giving sunlight would return. The holiday as we know it did not create the longing; rather, it claimed an innate human hunger as its own.

On Christmas Eve, my mother allowed the Christmas lights to be on all day; on other days, they were not turned on until nightfall.

Christmas Eve was all about Santa, too, of course, though I didn't play the game as long as my mother would have liked.

I think I was just 5 when I decided the whole thing was a ruse. I gave up my belief easily and with a fair degree of relief. I had never warmed to the idea of a man who could see me any time at all and who knew everything I did. It wasn't that I was worried he would find my behavior wanting, not at all. I was a good kid. Rather, I wanted my privacy.

Whenever he appeared on television, I would hide behind the couch, thinking it might make me harder to see. One of the many pleasures of Christmas Eve was that Santa was occupied, too busy to spend his time watching me.

Yet for years, I went along with cookies and milk, setting a thank-you note alongside because it pleased my mother.

My grandparents came to our house for Christmas Eve dinner each year, which always began in exactly the same way, with cream cheese and garlic dip, chips and big bowls of nuts in their shells. I loved the slender silver nut picks that I used to extract the meat of my favorite, Brazil nuts.

The table included pretty platters filled with the handmade candies -- colorful fondants, divinity, fudge and, my favorite, penuche -- that my mother began making in early fall.

When it came to dinner, there was no traditional menu and the only meals I remember were those that included Dungeness crab, usually served hot with garlic butter but now and then served chilled with cocktail sauce and Louis dressing. It remains my favorite indulgence on this night.

After dinner, I helped with dessert, setting what were called snow balls on the prettiest glass plates in the cupboard. Snow balls consisted of white cake filled with ice cream, slathered with vanilla frosting and then rolled in coconut. On top were bright green holly leaves and three deep scarlet holly berries made of frosting. In the center was a candle holder with a red candle.

After the candles were lit, I turned out all the lights but those of the Christmas tree and carried the snowballs one by one into the living room, where we always had dessert.

I was absolutely dazzled by the sight of them and the warm halo of light cast by the tiny candles. I would wait until the candle burned on my snow ball all the way down and then I would lift the green leaves and red berries to my lips, savoring the warm vanilla as the frosting melting in my mouth.

And then I was done. I had no interest in the coconut, the cake or the ice cream.

Over the years I have discarded most of the traditions of my childhood, trading them for personal rituals -- putting up a tree that will remain until Twelfth Night, listening to Willie Nelson's "Red-Headed Stranger," which accidentally became a tradition when my girls were little -- that make more sense with how I live now.

But one remains. Christmas Eve is a night for Dungeness crab, almost always as Crab Louis but sometimes as a chilled soup, in crab cakes or tossed with fresh pasta, olive oil and lemon. The house is warm with the glow of candles, the sauvignon blanc is cold and the crab just tastes right, year after year after year.

This is my favorite winter salad, one I have made for years, without the addition of the crab. It is pretty and festive and delicious, perfect after a big meal of turkey or roast beef. Add fresh crab and it becomes a delicate main course, perhaps on Christmas eve. Don't worry about following the directions to the letter. You can omit persimmons and avocado if you don't have them and you can substitute other nuts for the candied pecans and still keep the spirit of the dish.

Winter Jewel Salad

with Dungeness Crab

Makes 8 to 10 servings

2 Dungeness crab, cooked, cleaned and chilled

-- Extra virgin olive oil, preferably Olio Nuovo

2 Meyer lemons, halved and seeded

1 large shallot, minced

-- Kosher salt

2 tablespoons best-quality red wine vinegar or pomegranate vinegar

2 to 3 Fuyu persimmons

1 large or 2 medium radicchio

4 cups, lightly packed, Italian parsley leaves

6 cups, lightly packed, watercress, large stems discarded

10 to 12 ounces feta cheese, drained

10 to 12 ounces candied pecans

-- Arils (seeds) of 1 large or 2 medium pomegranates

2 firm ripe Hass avocado, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste

-- Black pepper in a mill

Remove all the crab meat from the shells and put it into a medium bowl. Add a generous 1/4 cup or so of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon. Season with salt and pepper, toss gently, cover and chill until ready to use.

Put the minced shallot into a small mixing bowl, season with several pinches of salt and pour the vinegar over it. Set it aside.

Slice off the stem end and blossom end of the persimmons and cut the persimmons into 1/8-inch thick rounds. Cut the rounds into quarters, put them in a bowl and set aside.

Cut the raddichio in half lengthwise (through the poles) and cut out the small core. Set one half cut side down on a work surface and use a sharp knife to slice it into crosswise ribbons not quite 1/2 inch wide. Cut the second half. Put the sliced radicchio into a large salad bowl and toss with your fingers to separate the slices.

Add the parsley and watercress and toss gently.

(The salad can be made in advance up to this point; hold in a cool area until ready to serve.)

To finish the salad, add the cheese and walnuts to the greens. Reserve a couple of tablespoons of pomegranate arils and add the rest to the salad, along with almost all of the sliced persimmons. Toss gently and add the avocado.

Season the salad with kosher salt and toss very gently.

Drizzle with olive oil and toss again.

Add the lemon juice to the shallots and vinegar and pour the mixture over the salad. Add several turns of black pepper and toss.

Taste a leaf or two for balance. If it seems too tart, add a bit more salt and a bit more olive oil and toss again. Taste again and balance if needed.

To serve, divide the salad among large bowls. Top each portion with some of the crab, garnish with the reserved pomegranate arils and persimmons and serve immediately.

Michele Anna Jordan can be contacted via e-mail at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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